Book Review: Deadlands: Boneyard by Seanan McGuire
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, Media Tie-in
Series: Book 3 of Deadlands
Publisher: Tor (October 17, 2017)
Length: 352 pages
While I’ve read a lot of tie-in fiction in my time, this might be one of few instances where I’ve picked up a book based on a franchise or media property that I’ve had no prior experience with. Happily, like most media tie-ins, Boneyard is completely accessible to anyone, whether or not they are familiar with the Deadlands role-playing game or have even read the previous books in the series.
For many years, Annie Pearl has been a mainstay of the Blackstone Family Circus, known for her role in growing and caring for the traveling show’s collection of unique oddities. But long before she was Mistress of Monsters, she was Grace Murphy, married to a mad scientist who conducted unspeakable experiments on his young wife. The last straw finally came when the crazed Dr. Murphy set his eyes on their daughter Adeline, prompting Annie to steal away in the middle of the night with the infant girl and their pet lynx cub in tow. After many weeks and many miles, she eventually ended up at the mercy of Nathaniel Blackstone, the kind-hearted circus owner who took in the tired mother and her sickly child. Life in the circus is not easy, however, and everyone who joins must earn their keep. Luckily for Annie, she’s a hard worker who will do anything to protect and provide for her daughter…and as it turns out, she’s pretty good at taking care of the circus creatures too. Time passes, and their menagerie of horrors grows.
But like most traveling circuses, Blackstone’s is always a knife edge between survival and starvation. To make the most out of the remaining season, they decide to steer their wagons towards The Clearing, a small town deep in the woods of Oregon where their residents are always hungry for entertainment. Word is though, one in four shows that pass through The Clearing never emerge from the wilderness again, but with the alternative to not going being the circus’s ruin, Nathaniel Blackstone judged it to be worth the risk. Ultimately, it would be a decision he would come to regret, as the crew finds itself beset by trouble soon after their arrival. Two of their members disappear into the woods after their first show, one of them being young Adeline. Together with Martin, whose girlfriend has also gone missing, Annie must brave the darkness and enter the terror-filled wilds to rescue her daughter from the monsters of the night.
These days, a lot of people still balk when they hear the term “media tie-in”, and hey, I don’t blame them. While the genre has come a long way in the last few decades, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding books based on movies or games, because the sad truth is, a vast majority of them just aren’t that great. Thankfully though, publishers in recent years have pushed hard to try and change those perceptions, especially for their popular franchises and big-name projects. One way they’ve started to do so is by contracting well-known authors, and in this case, the makers of Deadlands have partnered up with the talented and award-winning Seanan McGuire to pen the latest novel based on the world of their Weird West RPG.
I won’t deny it; I was pretty excited when I heard, and if you’re already familiar with McGuire’s style, then you’ll probably know exactly what I’m talking about. She’s been known to write stories that are on the dark and quirky side—in other words, perfect for a Weird Western. There was also little doubt she would be bringing the full force of her creativity to the setting and atmosphere, and I was not disappointed. McGuire’s commitment to detail can be seen and felt even in the opening paragraphs, which paint a harsh but gratifying reality for those who have fully dedicated their lives to the Blackstone Family Circus. Sure, the going can get tough, but the circus takes care of its own, and Annie and Adeline find themselves surrounded by love and friendship as they travel across the frontier, entertaining crowds wherever their wagon wheels take them.
It is an existence that is at once idyllic and grim, much like the setting, which ultimately takes on a personality of its own. While the Deadlands RPG takes place in the American “Wild West” during the last quarter of the 19th century, it is also a world filled with monsters and other malicious entities, creating a combination of historical and horror elements which serves as the basis of the novel. Throw some mad science and steampunk into the mix, and the result is an intense and chilling supernatural fantasy further bolstered by an intriguing plotline and well-developed characters. In fact, if I only have one complaint, it was that the ending felt jarringly abrupt. Given the time and care spent building upon both Annie and Martin’s storylines, I would have expected the denouement to be handled with the same meticulous treatment. Instead, I just got the impression that the author was in a hurry to wrap things up.
Still, despite some pacing missteps, Boneyard managed to hit that elusive sweet spot between creepy horror and action entertainment. Seanan McGuire was able to charm me with her courageous protagonists and, more importantly, make me feel connected to a game world that was completely new and foreign to me. Weird West fans will eat this one right up, and I imagine readers with prior experience or more than just a passing familiarity with the Deadlands RPG will probably appreciate it even more.